Baltimore's archdiocese, the oldest in the nation, can once again claim one of the highest-ranking members of the Roman Catholic Church as its leader.
Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, leader of the archdiocese since 2007, was named a cardinal Friday by Pope Benedict XVI. At an official ceremony next month, he will become the fourth bishop in the 223-year history of the archdiocese to be so honored. He does so as he prepares to leave Baltimore for a new position in Rome.
"This is great cause for rejoicing for me and my friends," O'Brien said in a phone interview Friday while overlooking the dome of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. He will retain his role as apostolic administrator in Baltimore until the pope names his successor here, possibly as early as March.
O'Brien, 72, has been splitting his time between Rome and Baltimore since August, when he was appointed Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a position traditionally filled by a cardinal. The predominantly lay order, which dates to the Crusades, ministers to Christians and those of other faiths in historical Palestine.
"We don't get updates on the search for a successor," said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese. "That is ultimately the pope's decision."
After evening Mass on Friday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street, Tom Lauman of Homeland said he was proud to see O'Brien elevated.
"It's fabulous and a well-deserved honor; he has been a big part of the church here," Lauman said. "It's great this honor comes while he is still in Baltimore."
Although O'Brien's future was expected to include the traditional cardinal's red hat, the archbishop said the timing of the announcement was a surprise. He was en route to the airport for a flight to Rome on Tuesday when he received a call from "the pope's No. 2 man," he said. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, gave him the news.
"I knew it would be sooner or later, but when it actually happened, it was very moving," O'Brien said. "You don't realize the layers of emotion building up under the surface."
The title gives O'Brien membership in the College of Cardinals, who advise the pope and elect his successor. Of the current 192 cardinals, 108 are under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a papal election. A consistory, a formal meeting of the pope and cardinals, is set for Feb. 18 at the Vatican to formally elevate O'Brien and the other 21 newly designated cardinals, including one other American — New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
O'Brien predicted that the number of American cardinals will grow, given the nation's pool of young bishops. But "while anything is possible in God's grace," he said he doubts an American will be elected pope anytime soon. America's role as a leading world power and the contentious political climate surrounding social issues here could make it difficult for a priest from the U.S. to be chosen for the papacy.
Carolyn Woo, newly named president of Catholic Relief Services, which has its headquarters in Baltimore, had her first encounter with O'Brien this week, when she started her new job.
"He sent me a thank you and beautiful flowers in a truly warm, welcoming gesture," she said. "I am overjoyed that he will be a cardinal. He is such a man of faith as expressed by his actions and his pastoral engagement. … All Baltimore should be proud."
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, has worked closely with O'Brien on a range of issues and said she has found him an accessible and warm-hearted leader.
"He has been an outspoken, prominent and passionate voice on immigration, repealing the death penalty, upholding the sanctity of marriage and is a strong pro-life advocate," she said. "He is truly an advocate for the dignity of the human person, from conception to death."
The chapel at the Cathedral was filled for Friday evening's Mass, and people were talking about O'Brien's elevation as they spilled out.
Barb Gaver of Mount Washington said she was touched by O'Brien's participation over the past several years in a noon service on Good Friday at St. Alphonsus Church.
"I am so proud of our archbishop that he is now an assistant to Pope Benedict," she said.
O'Brien said his thoughts will remain with the Baltimore archdiocese. Though his tenure here is about to end, he will retain the title of archbishop emeritus of Baltimore, a deeply meaningful designation for him, he said.
"Baltimore is still my main preoccupation and will remain so until my successor is named, sometime before Easter," he said.